The Construction of Cyclical Time in Waterland

Maya Rao '97 (English 168, 1996)

In response to Victorian linear time, Waterland, like Oscar and Lucinda and Possession, interweave the past and the present to create cyclical time. Contrasting the linear time which constructs the past as dead, cyclical time makes the past come to life as an active force in the present. Swift structures Waterland cyclically by placing the past and present parts of his narrative in non-chronological order, by weaving the same symbols such as the beer bottle throughout the narrative, and by employing the metaphor of the river. The Ouse runs throughout the narrative and connects the different parts to one another. Crick specifically constructs the river cyclically, not linearly: "so that while the Ouse flows to the sea, it flows, in reality, like all rivers, only back on itself, to its own source; and that impression that a river moves only one way is an illusion" (145-46). The Ouse serves as a central symbol which gives Waterland a cyclical structure.

Swift constructs circular time not only by structuring Waterland's narrative cyclically but also by didactically presenting time as circular. Addressing Victorian progression, Crick constructs it cyclically with his suggestion that "whatever moves forwards will also move back" (73). Throughout Waterland, Crick questions whether human beings really move in "a great circle" (135). He begins his journey into the past to find an explanation for why his wife kidnaps a baby. Depicting Mary's youthful abortion, Crick describes himself seeing the dead fetus in a pail and realizing that what is "in the pail is what the future's made of" (308). Referring to the fetus in terms of the future, Crick produces a double meaning. As the origin of human life, the fetus is literally the starting material for humankind's future. For Crick personally, however, this dead fetus also represents the reason why his wife eventually becomes mentally unstable and takes another woman's child. Damaging Mary's body, the abortion prevents her from having any future children. This dead fetus from Crick's teenagehood makes his future by causing his wife's present-day actions. Showing how "the history of the past is built in, directly and effectively, really, in the present" (Alphen, 210) this active connection between the past and present constructs time cyclically.

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